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Debate: Should the world continue to prosecute Nazi war criminals?

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Should we continue to prosecute Nazi war criminals?

Background and context

During the Second World War, many atrocities were committed by those of the Nazi side, including the massacre of civilians and the organised genocide of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’. Often those Nazis responsible for committing these war crimes during the Second World War managed to escape arrest and prosecution afterwards by escaping to other countries around the world, while the evidence against them was lost or destroyed. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc after the Cold War, much of this evidence has been rediscovered, and many criminals, now in their 80s, identified. The debate is over whether these criminals should now have prosecutions begun against them for their former crimes. The most recent example of this was the national debate in Britain over the prosecution of Konrad Kalejs, a Latvian implicated in membership of Arajs Kommando, a unit accused for murdering tens of thousands of Jews. The issue is also controversial in countries such as Romania, Hungary, Australia and Canada. Note on Research: Care should be taken when researching this topic online. Many organisations broadly supporting the proposition have useful websites, but it is much harder to investigate the opposition effectively. Be aware that some sites which oppose prosecution of World War II war crimes suspects lie on the extreme right politically, often advocating holocaust denial and anti-semitic positions. However, none of the websites listed below takes such a line, whether for or against the motion.

Serving justice: Can justice be further served by prosecuting WWII war criminals?


That time has elapsed is not a legal defence for war criminals: If the evidence had been available at the end of the war they would have been prosecuted then. No matter how long ago these crimes were committed, their horrific nature can leave no doubt that their perpetrators must be hunted to the ends of the earth. We must do justice equally to all war criminals, or we are seemly allowing that fleeing justice is a valid option for avoiding prosecution. No legal system can establish such a precedent.

We owe it to the dead to prosecute those responsible for their deaths: If we do not, then they have died in vain.


Nazi war criminals uncovered now were usually just following orders, and so they aren't fully responsible for their acts: WWII was so long ago, that these individuals were usually very young and of low rank. They may have had not choice in committing war crimes. If they had resisted, they probably would have been killed, so, in effect, they performed these acts under duress. They were also frequently not German, adding to the consideration that they can't be held fully responsible. Most of the major figures responsible for atrocities are now dead. For this reason, there is little remaining potential for justice to be furthered.

These crimes are remembered and eternally punished by events such as Remembrance Day:

War crime prosecutions are likely to fail now, given the problems of identification and proof after so much time:

Interests of living victims: Do living victims of War Crimes desire prosecutions? Is it in their best interests?


Living WWII war crimes victims desire continued prosecution: Victims who have survived are in fact those most in favour of prosecution, and we should not make assumptions on their behalf. Nor should we insult them by publicly exculpating their torturers and refusing to prosecute them.


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Deterrence: Are prosecutions important for deterring future war crimes?


Prosecutions will deter future war crimes: With the terrible genocide and ethnic cleansing in recent times, such as the massacre of Kosovans by Solobodan Milosevic, we need to send a signal to criminals that they will be made to pay for their crimes. Otherwise leaders will continue to follow such policies, believing themselves safe from all retribution.


Those that commit war crimes are frequently irrational, and would be deterred by visible prosecutions: It is doubtful whether genocide such as this is based on rational calculations; the diversion of resources into the ‘Final Solution’ was a major reason why Hitler lost the war. In the same way, war criminals are unlikely to be deterred by legal threats such as these; they are driven by a fanatical hatred, not common sense.

Public good: Will prosecutions help guide and improve public behavior in relation to war crimes?


Bringing the issues involved out into the open again will remind the world of the terrible event, and promote greater peace: Societies are sometimes accused of having short memories, in which terrible wars and atrocities of the past are forgotten, along with their lessons. Prosecuting war crimes will bring these events back out into the public eye, reasserting how bad they were and how important continued public vigilance remains on these matters.

  • Prosecuting Nazi genocide might encourage heightened public pressure to intervene in Darfur.


Prosecuting elderly war criminals may provoke sympathy for them: Such sympathy could even have the effect of causing people to identify with their far-right activity, and with the effect of causing a resurgence of such beliefs.



  • This House would prosecute war criminals
  • This House would hunt them down
  • That we should continue efforts to bring Nazi war crime suspects to trial
  • Time should be no barrier to justice

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

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